FEMA Knocks State Plan to Lessen Stormwater Runoff Problems

Tom Johnson | March 13, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Federal disaster management agency questions whether proposed improvements go far enough in reducing urban flooding

flooding
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has faulted the state’s new rules to manage stormwater runoff — the single biggest problem impairing New Jersey’s waters — suggesting it falls short of curtailing flooding and averting impacts to water quality.

In a letter to the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Region II office of the federal disaster agency questioned whether the proposal, as drafted, will reduce urban flooding. Instead, FEMA warns flooding may worsen given the proposal’s failure to factor in more intense rainfall events with climate change in the future.

The FEMA letter adds to criticism from environmentalists over the DEP proposal, the first major regulatory proposal made by the agency under Gov. Phil Murphy. In an earlier letter to the DEP commissioner, a coalition of 16 of the state’s most prominent environmental organizations urged a more comprehensive approach to the problem.

Only 5 percent of the state’s waterways meet federal clean-water standards, the level where they are deemed safe for the public to swim and fish. Between one third and a half of the state’s impaired waters are impaired by stormwater runoff, which flushes heavy metals, oils, fertilizers, phosphates and other pollutants into streams and rivers.

The DEP proposal, however, has won praise from both the federal agency and conservationists on at least one point — its focus on so-called green infrastructure to better manage stormwater. Green infrastructure tries to mimic the natural water cycle to control runoff by allowing it to be absorbed into soil or vegetation in rain gardens and permeable pavements.

One ‘troubling’ item

But both FEMA and conservationists find “troubling’’ the proposal’s elimination of non-structural stormwater management techniques, such as buffer zones around streams and green roofs, to control runoff. The agency said the abandonment of such strategies as well as the absence of restrictions on increases in runoff volume amount to “significant deficiencies.’’

Michael Pisauro, policy director of The Watershed Institute, agreed. “Moving to green infrastructure is a step forward, but it doesn’t address the underlying standards so it won’t reduce the volume and amount of stormwater runoff,’’ he said.

FEMA, a stakeholder in the development of the rule given the history of flooding in the state, also recommended the state look to add a requirement to remove nutrients in runoff, noting phosphorus continues to impair the use of New Jersey waters.

In the letter, the agency noted its post-disaster investments around New Jersey’s rivers and urban watersheds have exceeded $275 million, not including the bigger storms like superstorm Sandy. Those costs are nearly $2.7 billion to date, the agency said, and they don’t include the Hazard Mitigation Assistance program — designed to reduce future risks to flood-prone properties.

Environmentalists hoping for more

The proposed regulations under fire are changes in the stormwater rule adopted by the DEP in the summer of 2016, during Chris Christie’s time as governor, after a long debate with environmentalists and the Democratic-controlled Legislature. The environmental community was hoping the Murphy administration would scrap the Christie-era rule entirely, but the department has chosen to revamp the regulation in increments.

“They could have gotten rid of the Christie rollbacks and strengthened the flooding and water quality protections,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Pisauro also faulted the proposal. “I don’t know that it (the proposal) will make it worse, but it clearly won’t make it better,’’ he said.

The public comment period on the rule has ended, and the DEP is preparing to respond to what it heard during the process.